Lilac owner a semifinalist in James Beard Awards


Louis Habeck, Louis Habeck Photography

Lilac owner Jeremy Engebretson found out Thursday that he is a semifinalist in the annual James Beard Foundation Awards.

The call that Jeremy Engebretson had been waiting for for so many years finally came on Wednesday. He just didn’t get to hear it until Thursday.

“I actually got the call yesterday,” he said Thursday afternoon. “But I worked all day because it was Valentine’s Day, so I didn’t check my voicemail until this morning.”

The call was from the James Beard Foundation, letting him know that he was one of 20 James Beard Awards semifinalists for the 2018 title of Best Chef in the northwest region, which includes Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

So of course he jumped on his computer and went to the foundation website, where he found the list of finalists in 21 categories. He said he scrolled down the northwest region list, past all the chefs in big cities — Portland, Portland, Seattle, Portland, Seattle, Seattle — and there it was: “Jeremy Engebretson, Lilac, Billings, MT.”

“It’s just huge, man” he said. “I mean, I’ve been chasing this since my 20s, since I started.”

Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and Wyoming, opened Lilac, at 2515 Montana Ave., six years ago. A quote from him on the restaurant’s website says it all, succinctly: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

This is the third year in a row one Montanan has made the list of finalists in the northwest region. In 2017 and 2016 it was Michael Muirhead, the owner of Más Taco in Red Lodge.

A press release from the James Beard Foundation said there were more than 20,000 online entries in this, the 28th annual James Beard Foundation Awards, a list that was winnowed down to 20 semifinalists in 21 categories.

The final nominees will be announced on March 14, and the awards gala will be on May 7 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Engebretson isn’t thinking that far ahead just yet.

“At this point, I’m just so happy to be here,” he said. “It’s going to be good for the restaurant and I think it’s going to be good for the city.”

Engebretson said he’s not at all familiar with how the James Beard award-winners are selected, but he assumes that semifinalists will be visited by someone from the judging panel. The press release from the foundation said the foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Committee reviewed all 20,000-plus online nominees to determine eligibility and regional representation.

That committee then produced a nominating ballot listing semifinalists, which was sent to an independent volunteer panel of more than 600 judges from across the country, who will select five finalists in each category. Those same judges then select one of the five in each category for the top award.

Lilac is relatively small and its menu is relatively short, but the care taken by Engebretson and his crew to do everything just right has won the restaurant a lot of dedicated followers. Engebretson’s own favorite, which has been on the menu from the start, is the braised short rib, served with potato gnocchi, caramelized onion and parmesan cheese.

There are so many ways to cut corners in the food business, Engebretson said, but he has always has been dedicated to using the best, freshest ingredients and preparing them the right way.

A little more than a year ago, it was announced that Engebretson had signed on as the executive chef in residence at the Petroleum Club, located on the 22nd floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. He said he’s still there, but his title now is general manager. How does he juggle that with running Lilac?

“I have a really good staff,” he said. “It just depends on where I’m needed most or where I want to be.”

On his Facebook page, he described what it felt like to be named as a semifinalist:

“To say I’m humbled is an understatement. To say I’m ecstatic doesn’t suffice. To say I’m lucky discounts the work of some many people over the years. And if I said I didn’t have a tear or two I’d be lying. Damn pollen. This is a dream.”

Mostly it matters because he cares about Lilac and wants others to care, too.

“Maybe now we’ll get the attention I think we deserve,” he said.

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